Sunday, 16 June 2019

Teaching poetry at KS3 – why we need more chat in the classroom.


 When did written assessments become the sole way to mark a student’s understanding of a text, idea or concept? The sad thing is that in an attempt to develop students and praise the God of Progress, we have ditched some useful, handy, and relatively easy, ways to judge an assessment. Instead of getting students to explore texts in depth we are stuck on a pretty limited way of analysis.
Three years ago we ditched all written analysis of poetry at KS3. When students were writing essays about Shakespeare and essays about novels, it becomes tedious when you add another essay or essay style writing. We stopped completely. We, well I, felt that all we were doing was repeating the assessing stage and not repeating the idea forming stage. We were obsessed on the marking rather than the thinking. Were we getting students to think of interesting ideas in the poem? No, we were rewarding those interesting ideas in writing, but were we working heavily students learning the ideas and not necessarily coming up with their own interpretations.
There was another important reason for ditching a written assessment on poetry was the workload problem. At different points in the academic year we have Year 7, 8 and 9 not having a written assessment for a term. This alleviates the pressure points of mock marking. The time when teachers mark mocks is a real pressure point, because suddenly a normal workload is increased by 100%. You’ve not just got a pile of work to mark for each class, but now added to that, because it is the educational equivalent of the Easter Bunny leaving a brown treat, you are left with not just one piece of work to mark but the work like bunnies has replicated themselves several times. So, you are left with four essays per student, because it is ‘fun-time mock season’. That’s why we place the spoken assessments at this point. The last thing you want hanging over your heads is another set of marking, when you have thirty Year 7 essays hanging over your head.
So, how do we use poetry? We have an anthology of poems selected from various times, poets and styles and we link them thematically. Then, we work through the poems one at a time. At the end, we get students to compare two poems and make an interesting comparison. Usually, the talk will comprise of the student selecting two lines from the poems and exploring their ideas and their observations. Finally, we assess the talk for performance (pass / merit / distinction) and then for quality of ideas. We have two levels of assessment. The key thing for us is getting students to talk about poems and explore. And, if I am honest this unit involves lots of annotating and lots of talking. Talking is good. Talking is great. Talking is easy. We talk about relationships in Year 7. We talk about voices in Year 8. We talk about setting in Year 9.
For me, the emphasis on raising the quality of discussion is far more productive than the identikit written analysis we were doing before and I talking too of the awful APP units too. We talk before we write. And boy isn’t that the problem with KS3. We write before we talk. ‘Write down your idea before we share it,’ is a phrase often said. Our emphasis is on the written communication. The forming of sentences. The capturing of thoughts on a page. How many teachers fear having a blank page in exercise books at the end of the lesson? 
Ideas need space to form, develop and grown and that happens verbally. One of the things I often say to students is the need to talk in English. Argue. Chat. Disagree. Question. Challenge. Persuade. If a student can talk about something, they can sure as hell write about it. I love being challenged. I had a lengthy debate with one student over the colour of the lighting in An Inspector Calls. He was challenging me and I loved it. I even went to Twitter to seek support. He apparently did a poll with the students on another social media platform. Some might call it a ‘spark of interest’. Another might call it ‘engagement’. I’d call it the exploration of an idea.    
Boys can cope with challenging and complex texts, but has the process of how we do things had a negative impact?  I was that loud mouthed boy at secondary school. I’d talk about anything and everything. Get me involved in a conversation and I was hooked. Give me something at that age and ask me to write about it and I would struggle. I’d struggle because I hadn’t bounced the idea around in my mouth and in the air around me. I hadn’t heard the sound of ideas and heard that one thing sound better than another thing else I had said.  
Again, the problem is the nasty loathsome GCSEs spoiling everything. Because there is a large unseen element of the exams, we have internalised that exam process in planning ideas for lessons. We give students a task and expect them to treat it like an unseen text. Think of an idea on your own and write it down. We don’t go and get them to talk about it first. This process is repeated endlessly in lessons and classrooms. We know boy’s engagement is an issue, but is that engagement something simple like the use of communication skills? Is it our emphasis on writing that is hindering boys’ ability to communicate? We talk about looking for the quick fixes, but could it be as simple case of us using the writing process as the dominant way in rather than the spoken process. We spend half our time telling boys to be quiet, when maybe that should be the thing that we promote. Talk boys, but make sure it is about what we are focusing on in lessons.
Now, I am not advocating people get debates and formal discussions in lessons. In fact, far from it. A debate is probably the last thing we need. I do, however, think we need to explore how we use chat and discussion in lessons. How could we use it to engage students with the ideas, content and texts? Are we turning everything into writing? Do we want English to be the subject that is solely known for writing? Wouldn’t it be better if English was the subject where students felt they thought about things?
Right, here is one such thing I did with some poetry. I revealed the poem ‘Stealing’ by Carol Ann Duffy one line at a time. I then gave students this grid. 

Deeper meaning

·         I think the poem is really saying…
·         For me, the poem is teaching us…
·         On the surface the poem is about … but under the surface it is about…  


Comparing to the other poems

·         This poem is a bit like …because… 
·         The poem is the opposite of … because ..
·         I think this poem shows an alternative perspective to …
·         This poem focuses more on … than

Pick on a word and explore

·         The word ‘…’makes me imagine…
·         The word ‘…’ makes me think of …
·         The word ‘...’ reminds me of...
·         The word ‘…’ make me feel …

Feelings

·         To make us feel _________, the writer shows us…
·         To make us feel _________, the writer uses the image of …
·         To make us feel _________, the writer uses the combination of …. and …


Symbols

·         The writer uses …. to be a symbol of...
·         …. is usually a symbol of … but here it is used as a symbol of…
·         … is symbolic of the relationship between … and …

Connections between aspects in the text

·         The use of … and … makes us…
·         There is a pattern of … across the text…
·         The writer seems to be repeating…

An alternative way of looking at things

·         Another way to look it is …
·         It could also suggest…
·         Someone else might think that…



Developing / Increasing / Decreasing

·         As the poem develops, the …. increases because …. 
·         There’s a marked decrease in … as the poem progresses
·         I notice that … develops in the poem
Changes

·         The mood changes when…
·         The writer changes the tone of the voice when...
·         The turning point in the pome is when…
Students had to share ideas and explore the poem using the sentence openings. Each time they shared one with the class they ticked it off. I didn’t get through the poem. In fact, I only made it to the second stanza with them. The discussion was relentless. I had boys exploring how the snowman might be a metaphor for a man dehumanising a body after killing a person. Another, kept seeing patterns in the words. Another spotted subtle changes in the tone. We, together, explored the choice of taking the head first, exploring the fear of eyes looking at the stealer / murderer.
Did all the boys contribute? No. Did all the girls contribute? No. The majority did. A few didn’t. And that’s simply because not everybody is the same. These students, and I know them to, would prefer to write their ideas down rather than share them with the class. Some of these students like to absorb the ideas and then come to their own idea as result of hearing the others talk. Next lesson, we’ll see what they come up with.
There is no one model that fits and suits all students, but do we have a model for teaching that hinders a part of the school population. Balance is key. Maybe the balance has been shifted too far one way. If I asked those students to write about the poem, they’d do so with aplomb. That process is needed to help them get to a point of independence. KS3 isn’t the wasted years. It is the idea forming years. We need it to be a time for forming ideas. And that starts with talk.

In the beginning, I learnt to talk and I did that before I started to learn to write. Before all writing, there comes talk.

Thanks for reading,

Xris

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Diet GCSE English Language or GCSE English Language Zero


The problem we have with GCSE, which I think Ofsted has cottoned on to, is that it is all too easy to tippex out the acronym GCSE on the exam papers and serve it up to KS3 students. Look at us, we are challenging the students. The exam board did this and gave us ‘KS3 friendly’ exam papers, which were watered down GCSE papers. As a result of this, some students are going to be beaten over head with the structure question for six whole years. How is the text structured to interest the reader? More like, how is the curriculum structured to interest the teacher (I mean the student)?

Those evil little exam questions and texts worm their way through KS3 and taint everything. They are questions to test the learning at the end of the teaching. Not at the beginning and the middle. They are not the curriculum and all too often they are the curriculum planners. The GCSEs are the end point. The time when, in theory, the knowledge and skills come to fruition.      

The problem comes when shifting to GCSE work from KS3. The time when you pointedly say numerous times that you are doing GCSE work now. You probably go all out and write GCSE several times on a PowerPoint slide - just so they get the idea that this is really, really, really GCSE work. Oh, and you adopt a serious tone to your speech.

This year I tried something with Year 9s and I am finding it quite useful for teachers and the department. I wanted students to get used to the reading demands of the GCSE exam papers from an early start, but at the same time I wanted to see what the students needed to focus on for Year 10 and Year 11. So, I decided to use the GCSE exam extracts in a multiple choice format. Instead of just giving students the GCSE questions or being kind and just giving students two of the four reading questions, I gave students the texts and thirty or so questions to work with. I wanted to analyse and view the skills and understanding students had.

The writing element of the GCSE questions is problematic and it can discourage students. A student can have a good understanding of the text, but if their writing isn’t good enough, then we’ll not see that level of understanding in their answers. Using MCQ allows me to separate the writing and the reading elements, which can help to motivate students when they see that they have understood the text and they understand that their writing is just the thing holding them back.

The process was pretty simple. The students did the test. Then, they marked each other’s test. Using a grid, they could see the areas of weakness. The beauty of the grid was it contained answers so it avoided the teacher reading out the answers one question at a time. There was no marking for the teacher, but lots of information. Information on word knowledge, summary skills, analysis etc. We then provided students with a PLC and tips on how to improve those key areas. Included on the sheet was the average mark for each area for the year group. Students then could see how they did in relation to others in the year.

The great thing about this process is that as a ‘step up’ to GCSE this was relatively easy and useful. It has been so effective that I am using it with our current Year 10s before they do a mock on Paper 2. They are going to do the MCQ test and then they’ll work through the real questions with an understanding where they might fall down with the reading skills and good understanding of the texts.   

 I have included the test and the resources used. This is based on November 2017 English Language Paper 2. The test is not perfect, but it is a starting point for us. I am still in the early stages of MCQ usage and, like all things, in time I’ll get better at them.

Test
Marking sheet for the test  

Thanks for reading,

Xris 

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Thinking smarter with vocabulary and using the GCSEs

Like most people, I am thinking about vocabulary and looking at ways to improve and increase a student's vocabulary. One of the key sources for vocabulary is the GCSE English Language paper. 

I am jealous of other subjects in the way they can microanalyse the chances of things being or not being on their exam papers. We don't really do that in the way other subjects. They look at exam papers in such detail that makes our 'it might not be Exposure or Ozymandias' look pathetic when compared to their detailed analysis of X, Y and Z not being on the paper but A, B and C will definitely be on there. 

Based on the way other subjects interrogate their papers, I thought I'd do the same with the reading texts on the papers. My simple question was: what words would some students struggle with the meaning of? Then, for the duration of an hour or so, I went through each paper and looked ay the words used and catalogued them. The result is a list of words that could cause students difficulty in a future exam. There's no guarantee that students will meet these words in an exam, but there is a good chance they might. 

Anyway, I compiled the list so that when teaching vocabulary next year, we have a starting point. Of course, there are billions of words, but at least this is a start. Interestingly, the non-fiction texts tend to have more difficult words than the fiction texts and, surprisingly, I felt the specimen materials seemed to have been easier with the word choices even when the texts might be harder from an understanding point of view. 

You might disagree with my choices, but it is a start. 

Thanks for reading, 

Xris 









P1 Nov18
clients
prehistoric
ceased
oiled
resilient
striding
sheathed
gleam
ivory
mesh
sculptured
gaped
taloned
poised
warily
reptilian
jerked
pronounced
remit
crusted
undulate
wilderness
lunged
blazed
engulfed
idol
levelled
metallic



P1 Nov 17
archaeological
gulps
haze
shimmer
dented
unrelenting
chorus
expanses
pastures
submission
inhospitable
concealed
slope
awning
demoralised
monotonous
significance
momentum
P1 Jun 18
terraced
soared
on par
kindle
illuminating
triumphed
devotion
conviction
sullen
disillusionment
crept
uncharacteristically
routine
quickened
meticulous
prospector
discouraged
bankrupt
critically
formulate
swelled
elements
vaguely
entirely

P1 Jun 17
practically
sufficient
sacrificed
striking
opal
stifled
resolve
meaningless
charmed
perishable
exquisitely


P1 Spec 16
cynical
bewildered
multitudes
hastily
inclination
uncoiled
gaiety
immense
P1 Spec 16
mound
shards
quivered
plunged
rustle


P1 Spec 16
adrift
bulk
pounding
conviction
unseeable
presence
fragrance
immaculate
Paper 2



P2 Jun 17
obnoxious
thrived
withered
unprecedented
giddy
gibberish
ambush
crook of arm
totters
uncontrollably
obliviously
liberty
stern
droop
fret
scold
P2 Jun 18
bronzed
dazzled
hollow
pestered
spread-eagled
native
ritual
legions
dexterous
slanting
majestically
uttering
exultant
verge
engulf
engulfment
crest
waded
exploits
mount
erect
exultingly
amidst
thronged
stimulated
exploits
galloping
enchanted
serene





P2 Spec 16
huddle
uniform
unrelieved
terraced
anonymous
debris
disused
blistered
perilous
entombed
hardened
endured
inching
ominously
treacherous
seeping
smothered
stupefying
catastrophe
wanton
void
feeble
displaced
fabled
successive
foundations
agitated
strained
roused
situated
accustomed
startled
scarcely
colossal
ashen
hues
pungent
persist
upheaved
P2 Spec 16
dilated
emerging
grandiose
devastation
undiluted
overcast
exhaled
resign
good-humoured
chit-chat
salubrious
wackiness
loathing
broad
concussion
derangement
gaily
profusely
disposed
bilious
dense
immense
enact

P2 Nov 17
beamed
disadvantage
brooding
industrial
adjacent
grim
forbidding
derelict
grime
oasis
enthusiastically
raring
darting
fluttering
mischievous
glint
ensemble
flourish
inclination
tantamount
philosopher
dismal
squalid
discordant
bawling
respectability
distressing
profusely
P2 Nov18
residential
assumption
congested
relatively
thus
characterise
waging
recline
barge
sole
plausible
morals
cocooned
despite
apparent
obliged
majority
minority
urban
bordering
proceeded
exceedingly
stead
inflicting